Reconnecting to the World | The Nation


Reconnecting to the World

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Even in the region, Islamic jihadism may not be the most serious problem today. That worry goes to the growing sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shiite communities that the Iraq War has helped provoke. The Sunni-Shiite divide runs directly through the region's oil-producing belt, and a Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish war in Iraq could draw in all the area's major powers, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This, more than religious extremists, occupies the minds of many people in these three countries as well as in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

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Sherle R. Schwenninger
Sherle R. Schwenninger is director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and a senior fellow at...

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Instead of addressing the real problems, Obama and Romney are focusing on deficit reduction. 

The crisis was caused by weak governance, excessive speculation and lax regulation. Austerity will only make the disease worse.

But even assuming that Islamic jihadism is a regional threat, this does not mean that a muscular American response would be the most appropriate one. Rather, if Washington were serious about damping down Islamic jihadism it would reduce America's heavy footprint in the region, not increase it; make a more serious attempt to address the legitimate grievances that arouse the passions of many in the Muslim world, especially Israel's occupation of the West Bank, not try to fudge them over; and internationalize American policy, not make it more difficult for other leading nations to be engaged. It would also help create the conditions for economic growth and development, not put new obstacles in the way by arousing more religious tensions and divisions.

The region, of course, does need democratic and economic reform, and Arabs are frustrated by Washington's support for authoritarian governments. But this does not mean that the lack of democracy is the principal cause--or that an American push for democratization is the principal cure--of terrorism and Islamic jihadism. In an exhaustive study, political scientist Robert Pape has concluded--correctly, in my view--that occupation is the single biggest cause of suicidal terrorism worldwide. And as Afshin Molavi of the New America Foundation has documented, what the people of the region want most is jobs and economic opportunity--understandably so, since unemployment runs as high as 25 percent in many Arab countries and even higher among the two-thirds of the population under 35.

Absent further heavy-handed American intervention, there is good reason to believe that bin Ladenism will eventually burn itself out, just as Western radical movements did in the 1970s and as the Iranian revolution did in the 1980s. Given the hunger for jobs and economic opportunity, bin Ladenism will eventually be seen for what it is--a futile attempt to deal with the modern world. Fascism and Communism were so dangerous because they could actually deliver the goods of modernization and jobs--at least for a period of time. This suggests the need for a prudent counterterrorist strategy combined with patient multilateral encouragement of political and economic reform aimed at building liberal state institutions, protecting human rights and creating jobs. Encouraging elections is desirable too, but only if we are willing to live with the results--which many neoliberals may not be prepared to do, given their intense dislike for Hezbollah and Hamas, two groups that are most likely to benefit from elections in Lebanon and Palestine, respectively.

The biggest problem with the neoliberal agenda is not just that it may be wrong but that it may be dangerously so. Breaking apart old orders always unleashes forces that we do not understand and cannot control. The notion that we can dial up just the right amount and just the right brand of democracy is naïve at best. It is the same mentality that has helped unleash the current forces of chaos in Iraq. And if Iraq is any guide, the neoliberal project would put the United States in the middle of the chaos and conflict that is likely to result, without a strategy for knowing how to control what it has set in motion. It is understandable that the major European governments want little or nothing to do with this venture, and that the rising powers of East Asia want to keep Washington's "war on terror" as far away from them as possible while they concentrate on growing rich and strong.

Without any real allies or any reasonable chance of success, the United States would dramatically increase its military costs with an extended US crusade. But there is no reason to believe that additional ground forces, as some leading Democrats propose, would be any more effective than the ones already in Iraq, or for that matter any less destabilizing than the ones we had to pull out of Saudi Arabia just a few years ago or out of Lebanon in 1984.

In the 1920s Britain too got caught up--and bogged down--in imperial adventures in the Middle East, weakening itself and ignoring rumblings in Europe and Asia and worrying problems in a globalized economy. Similarly, the neoliberal agenda today would distract us from much more fundamental concerns, whether they be our own economic weaknesses or the challenges posed by the further integration of China and India into the world economy. It naïvely assumes that the American people will be content to finance an even larger Iraq War while they lose jobs to China and India. And it assumes that foreigners will continue to lend us enormous sums even if we remain mired in a Middle East war running up billions of dollars in debts.

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